What to watch for as the Boston Celtics visit the Toronto Raptors

The Boston Celtics need to win start winning games after two frustrating losses following the All-Star break, and they’ll have to deal with the Toronto Raptors on the first leg of a back-to-back.

If the Boston Celtics have any interest in reaching the third seed in the East, Tuesday’s game against the Raptors almost feels like a must win. It wouldn’t be that way if the Celtics could take care of business against the Bulls, but here we are. In fact, the way this season has gone, this is exactly the game the Celtics have usually won.

The Raptors won’t make it easy though, and this will be the Celtics’ second game in Toronto this season. If they win they’ll own the tiebreaker with the Raptors, Sixers and will have a chance to clinch one against the Pacers. During a race for optimal seeding, tiebreakers are important.

Kyrie Irving told reporters after the loss to Chicago that he’s not worried about the team’s lack of consistent focus because, at the end of the day, he doesn’t believe there’s a team in the East that can beat the Celtics in a seven-game series. On Tuesday night, we’ll get to see if he’s right. If the Celtics don’t secure home court in the second round, which seems likely, they’ll have to be able to steal a game on the road. They nearly did it in Milwaukee last week, so let’s see if they can do it to the Raptors.

Tale of the tape

Celtics: 37-23 (5th in East), 1-3 on the road against top-five East teams

Raptors: 44-17 (2nd in East), 25-6 at home

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics, left, and teammate Kyrie Irving #11 celebrate over Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts on December 14, 2018. (Photo By Christopher Evans/Digital First Media/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Putting it all together

The Celtics played a terrific game in Milwaukee. They were active on defense, forced turnovers and made one of the best offenses in the NBA uncomfortable all game long. What they struggled to do was hit their shots. They generated plenty of good looks, but they just weren’t falling.

In Chicago, the shot making was there, but the effort on defense completely disappeared and the offense featured too many isolations for them to get a good rhythm. It’s time to put everything together for the Celtics. That means purposeful offensive possessions, shot making, and activity on defense. If they do all of those things at once, which has been an issue after the break, they should be able to win.

Gasol-Horford matchup

The Raptors’ big move at the trade deadline was acquiring Marc Gasol from the Grizzlies. Gasol is as proven as it gets at the center position, and adds a wrinkle the Celtics will have to worry about in their gameplan. Fortunately, they have Al Horford, who has proven he is the most important player Boston has against the top teams in the East.

Horford usually wins his matchups with Gasol. While they both have great skill for a big, Horford has the edge athletically. If Horford can win that matchup and then Irving or Tatum starts to attack a mismatch by switching him on to them, it could get difficult for Nick Nurse to keep Gasol on the floor. Then it’s just the Raptors Brad Stevens knows how to gameplan for.

Kyrie walking the walk

Irving’s comments after the loss to the Bulls were a change of pace. Usually after disappointing losses to inferior teams, he or at least one veteran challenges the team by calling them out. That hasn’t really worked, so Irving has resorted to the extreme confidence angle.

He claimed nobody in this conference can beat the Celtics in a seven-game series. I lean towards agreeing with that, but Tuesday will be a test for him. He is the leader of the team, and he’ll most likely have to give us a reason to believe him.

The Raptors are a tough matchup for Kyrie given their perimeter defenders of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and switchy wings like Paskal Siakam and OG Anunoby. But Irving has consistently torched the Raptors this season, so he’ll be a player to look out for, in case you weren’t considering paying attention to Irving.